Fashion's Problematic Relationship With Diversity

Artwork by Christina Karras

Artwork by Christina Karras

Fashion and diversity are two words that seem to work directly against each other, but with the increasing demand from the public who feel brushed aside by beauty companies and modelling agencies, the fashion world and its industries are starting to sing a different tune.

And, it’s seems well overdue.

This push for diversity has spawned Rihanna’s ‘Fenty Beauty’, featuring over 40 foundation shades, aimed at catering for every skin tone. The it-girl beauty brand Glossier, recently ran a campaign of nude photographs of powerful women, for their product aptly named ‘Body Hero’. While Vogue Australia's April 2018 cover featured Australian models –Akiima, Charlee Fraser, Andreja Pejić and Fernanda Ly– all from very different nationalities, share their stories of breaking  Australia's homogeneous beauty mould.

And when models like Slick Woods –a woman of colour, with gap teeth and a shaved head– walk the runways of New York this year, its clear designers have begun celebrating the beauty in being unique.

Slick Wood has made a name as Rhianna's muse, featuring in her Fenty Beauty campaigns and in the Fenty x Puma show for NYFW 18.

Slick Wood has made a name as Rhianna's muse, featuring in her Fenty Beauty campaigns and in the Fenty x Puma show for NYFW 18.

Diversity in fashion isn’t really unheard of—but it’s also not common.

Many “unconventional” models like Slick or Barbie Ferreira have been working overseas for a while, particularly in the US. And although the industries over there are far from perfect, they seem to represent all genders, skin tones, and body types, somewhat more successfully than here.

19-year-old, Melbourne-born model Jess* signed to an international Australian agency when she was an impressionable 14-year-old, and admits she has felt the negative burden of industry on her shoulders.

“Going into modelling at such a young age was overwhelming.” She says.

“I remember at 14, after just signing with my agency, they needed my measurements to post on the website and my comp cards. My agent measured me and said ‘yep your measurements are perfect as they are so try and keep them like that’.” She explains.

“Now, some 5 years later and I’m expected to have the same measurements as before I developed as a woman, it’s a ridiculous expectation.”

While Jess maintains she doesn’t feel like she -or anyone she knows- has ever experienced ‘discrimination’, per say, she is self-aware in saying, “most of the girls I know haven't experienced discrimination, because you tend to find that the women agencies scout, are 95% ‘classic’ and quite frankly, ‘basic’ models.”

By “basic” -she says with handmade air quotes- it is clear she means white, tall, young and thin. The beautiful, and traditional faces we have seen on catwalks and magazines for eons.

In a recent interview with PAPER Magazine, Sudanese model Duckie Thot has also come out criticizing the Australian modeling landscape for racial discrimination.

Though she initially made waves after appearing on Australia’s Next Top Model in 2013, she found herself struggling to get jobs. In fact, she "stuck with it for two years," but ultimately found the demand for black models in her home country was virtually non-existent.

“I think it was a very confusing part of my life for me. I was just this little [black] girl in Australia just being like, 'Oh yeah, I want to do modeling,' but [while also] being in a country that doesn't promote black models.” Duckie explained to PAPER.

Australia is a nation built on multiculturalism, and according to the 2016 Census, nearly half of Australians had either been born overseas or had at least one of their parents migrate from another country; with over 300 languages spoken in Australian homes.

So why is a country so diverse, struggling to represent these people in the fashion industry?

Multiculturalism and communications academic Dr Rimi Kahn, suggests Australia still grapples with the systemic prejudices in our history, going all the back to colonisation.

There can be grave consequences when a society fails to reflect the indivi duals within it. Dr Rimi reports, it “impacts on a person’s mental health, and self worth”.

Most large cities in the world today are incredibly diverse melting pots of people, so inevitably it is a challenge to reflect this diversity in cultural and political institutions such as the media.

“When this narrative does not include diverse voices it can lead to social exclusion, racism and inequality, and exacerbate social tensions within the community.” Dr Kahn explains. However “the discussion is definitely changing”, she says.

More recently, fashion and beauty industries have started to realise women of colour are an increasingly growing market in Australia, so there's more money to be made in developing products more suited to this market. Perhaps this is a positive shift - the industry is becoming more inclusive and acknowledging diversity.

“But, I think the profit motive is also a big factor here.” Dr Kahn points out.

She is right in suggesting money is what fuels these industries. They have historically made their money by setting up very narrow and prescriptive ideals of what is considered 'beautiful' or 'normal'.

And, they have been very successful in reinforcing the idea that not meeting these ideals makes one inadequate. In fact, it is fair to say the whole industry is based around the idea that you can never look good enough.

But with an emergence of bloggers and brands advocating for self-love and acceptance, social media is unearthing a whole new range of voices demanding to be heard.

Creative expression has taken a new turn in the last few years, with the influential role social media platforms like Instagram play. Designers and agents now have access to interesting and ‘everyday’ people to use as models, instead of just those who have been selected based on limiting, commercial standards.

Agencies like WINK Models have been taking it to their advantage, listening to the demands for better representations. They understand how important being inclusive is, for PR purposes and beyond.

“To constantly see aspirational people in the media who look nothing like you is pretty disappointing. Young people are looking for role models and for a while only people to choose from have been white, young and thin.” WINK’s Talent Manager Anna Mace says.

WINK is throwing support behind all types of beauty. “We are currently growing our curve division, we have one of the strongest classic divisions in Australia and are always making sure we on-board a range of ethnicities within all of our categories.”

Nevertheless, “the Australian beach babe is iconic and will always be.” Anna says.

But it’s clear these standards don’t define the only type of beauty anymore. A different attitude is emerging regarding the standards of beauty we see reflected in the world around us, and women from all ends of the globe are screaming out for it.